There are many concerns, discussions and news reports on the possible dissemination of fake news in Canada as the country heads towards the Oct. 21 election, often referenced with the Twitter hashtag #elxn43.
In my research on fake news and the Canadian election, I found a concerning indication that Canadian mainstream media is sometimes unjustifiably being associated with fake news. Some of these unfounded accusations can lead to a diminishing level of trust in the news media.
Another worrying sign I found is in the way online echo chambers or tightly knit online communities are formed, often attacking each other with the use of fake news accusations.
I’m an academic who analyzes social media commentary about fake news and Canadian politics. This research offers insight into the public’s political affiliations and their level of scrutiny. Because some news stories and political statements are often tagged by the public as fake news, it is relevant to know what is being tagged, who is mostly targeted and possibly why — especially during the election.
Using Twitter, I extracted 10,698 tweets that contain “fakenews” and “fake news” from a larger dataset of 2,496,738 tweets that referenced Canadian politics using the hashtag #CDNpoli. These tweets were posted by 206,273 unique users and were collected between May 23 to Sept. 25, 2019. Here’s a visualization of the tweets that refer to fake news:
The highest number of messages were retweeted on Sept. 5, mostly attacking Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer for tweeting about the British government’s alleged decision to send a child murderer to Canada, which turned out to be a false story. Tweets critical of Scheer’s claim were retweeted a few hundred times that day.
Retweets often indicate what people online are mostly focusing on, and so I conducted a closer examination of the data set by investigating the most retweeted posts. Here, I found two main features.
First, there are systematic and targeted attacks accusing Canadian mainstream media outlets of a liberal bias. The most mentioned outlet was CBC (1,243), followed by Global News (301) and CTV News (105) in terms of stories that were often flagged as possibly fake.
The words most frequently associated with fake news were CBC, CBCNews and Global News. Though not all the references were negative, many of the tweets targeted those specific outlets and their journalists to express dissatisfaction with their reporting.
In a previous study on fake news discourses, mostly focusing on the 2016 presidential election in the United States, I highlighted how online users can spam others and create what’s known as a networked flak activity, which I defined as “a collective negative response to (the mainstream media) in order to discipline it, change its tone and editorial stance, or undermine the public’s trust in it.”
Keeping the media in line
It’s a technique used by some political leaders, like U.S. President Donald Trump, to achieve some of those goals.
In Canada, attacks against mainstream media seem to be systematic and continuous, even when the news coverage sounds objective and neutral.
Another worrying observation is that there is an ongoing, highly polarized discussion of fake news, which is often used to discredit political opponents and weaken their positions.
The top 10 retweeted posts that I found during my research were highly polarized and illustrated the political rivalry between the Liberals and Conservatives. Tweets about, interviews with and statements by Canadian politicians and officials like Scheer, Justin Trudeau, Adam Vaughan (a Liberal candidate in Toronto) and Karina Gould (another Liberal candidate) were carefully scrutinized by the public, which is a healthy sign of critical political debates.
Some general political messages or campaigning videos are increasingly tagged by some audiences as fake news in an attempt to discredit the credibility of those politicians and cast doubt about their future political programs.
Discussions about election fake news on social media provide important insight into what the public critically perceives to be fake news. This can be useful when there are misleading political statements or mistakes in news reporting.
What’s concerning is that the “fake news” tag is sometimes employed as a tool to wage personal attacks against politicians that ultimately enhances political polarization and echo chambers, while Canadian mainstream media is sometimes unjustifiably attacked with fake news accusations.
We all need the news media to accurately inform and possibly engage citizens in a deliberative democracy, so attacking mainstream media and other politicians without evidence will not serve the Canadian public.
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